How the American Dream Works

Race Relations and the American Dream

While many Americans reveled in post-World War II prosperity as the fulfillment of the American dream, others weren't so upbeat. Sloan Wilson's 1955 novel "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," which was subsequently made into a movie starring Gregory Peck, depicted an emotionally scarred, combat veteran-turned-businessman who worked himself into a state of despair to support his family's suburban lifestyle [source: Wilson].

But other writers angrily defended their middle-class aspirations. "Obviously, we can't pick up and leave the suburbs -- even if we wanted to, which most of us don't," wrote newspaper columnist Ruth Millett in 1960. "What's the use of trying to make us feel guilty about following the American dream of trying to give our children what parents naturally want for their children -- a little bit easier life than they had, better educational opportunities, and a little more protection than they had during their growing years?" [source: Millett].


But soon enough, the suburbanites' Baby Boom offspring were questioning the dream their parents had embraced. At the same time, black Americans who'd long been denied the same rights and opportunities that white Americans took for granted, increasingly demanded their fair share. In a 1964 speech entitled "The American Dream," civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., told an audience at New Jersey's Drew University that America was "a dream yet unfulfilled" because of racial discrimination, poverty and violence. He said that instead of amassing more wealth, Americans' dreams should be to make Thomas Jefferson's statement that "all men are equal" into a reality by giving equal rights to minorities, rebuilding decaying inner cities, and working to eradicate hunger in poorer nations [source: King].

In the 1970s, with the U.S. economy stalling, inflation on the rise and the nation torn by both racial strife and an angry divide over the Vietnam War, King's call for Americans to reconsider their ambitions seemed prescient. In 1974, French historian Ingrid Carlander garnered U.S. newspaper headlines by publishing a book called "Les Americaines" in which she audaciously proclaimed that the American dream was dead [source: Freudenheim]. By the decade's end, Americans mired in long lines for gasoline, worrying about how to keep up with the mortgages on their suburban dream homes probably wondered if she was right. That fear and disenchantment led the American dream to morph yet again, as we'll discuss on the next page.